Crimes of the Heart
Written by Beth Henley, Directed by Carmel O'Reilly; Set Design, Jenna McFarland-Lord; Costume Design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Sound Design, Brendan Marr; Production Stage Manager, Maureen Lane
CAST (in order of appearance): Liz Hayes, Lenni Kmiec, Liam McNeill, McCaela Donovan, Melody Madarasz, Will Keary
Performances through September 16 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
Whenever I have the opportunity to see a play that features three sisters, I wonder if I am going to find similarities between their relationships and what I share with my two female siblings. In the case of Beth Henley's 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart, her richly drawn characters have far more quirks than the three of us, but they pull together and fiercely take on all comers when the youngest of the three is enmeshed in a matter of life and death. I'd like to think my sisters and I would do the same for each other.
Like the Grossman girls, the Magrath sisters lead dissimilar lives. First-born Lenny (Liz Hayes) is the responsible one who sublimated her own needs and stayed on in the Hazlehurst, Mississippi, family home to look after Old Granddaddy. Free-spirited Meg (McCaela Donovan) is the middle child who took off for California in search of a singing career with barely a backward glance, while Becky (Melody Madarasz) – called "Babe" to reflect her place in the birth order – married a powerful local politician and lives a life of not-so-quiet desperation.
What the sisters have in common is that they are survivors of an emotionally crippling experience, the hanging death of their mother and her beloved cat when the girls were 14, 11, and 8 years old respectively. They unsuccessfully try to hide their scars from each other and the rest of their small world, including their annoying first cousin Chick (Lenni Kmiec) who is appalled by their family history, Meg's old flame Doc Porter (Liam McNeill), and Babe's attorney Barnette Lloyd (Will Keary). As the story unfolds, Henley chips away at the veneer of each of the sisters, breaking them down before she holds out the prospect of hope for renewal and connection. Unfortunately, as much as I like Lenny, Meg, and Babe, and care about what happens to them, the telling feels overlong before a somewhat abrupt denouement.
The Gloucester Stage Company's production features a cast of newcomers to the North Shore under the direction of Carmel O'Reilly and the acting is topnotch. Hayes captures the world-weariness of the 30-year old Lenny whose past is colorless. She harbors few illusions about her future, but projects an inner goodness and devotion to her family. Meg is the flashiest of the sisters and Donovan takes the stage by storm with equal amounts of strength and vulnerability. Like the character she plays, Madarasz is the baby of the trio, but the Emerson College senior holds her own – and then some – playing between a pair of Equity actresses. She is at once angelic and devilish, bringing out Babe's innocence and her darkness, but always winning us over to her side because Madarasz makes us understand the young woman's motivations.
Kmiec plays the comic foil with dignity and great timing, and somehow even manages to garner a little sympathy for an unlikeable character. Henley gives the male characters just enough attention so they don't seem like afterthoughts, but it is a struggle for them to compete with our interest in the women. McNeill wears Doc's persona well, moving smoothly around the set and the Magrath women as someone comfortable in his own skin and accepting of where life has taken him. Keary exudes energy and enthusiasm as the attorney with a vendetta, and easily shifts gears when Lloyd tries to camouflage his interest in his client.
Jenna McFarland-Lord sets out a detailed kitchen for a strong sense of place and the way the sisters grew up. Each character is further defined by the costume designs of Rachel Padula-Shufelt, from Lenny's frumpy, baggy clothes, to Chick's Ladies' Social League style, to Meg's leather boots and crocheted sweater coat. Lighting Design by Russ Swift heralds the dawn of a new day and Sound Designer Brendan Marr accurately cues a passel of phone calls. (An aside: Few can handle a one-sided telephone conversation better than Bob Newhart, but each of these women is convincing when we hear only their part of a dialogue with an unseen caller.)